DULUTH, Ga. – With a chance to ice the game away and advance to SEC final, senior guard Meighan Simmons knocked down five free throw attempts in the final 1:36 to help seal a 86-77 win for the second seeded Lady Vols over third seed Texas A&M in the SEC semifinals round.
For Simmons, her struggles have been persistent in the past two games in the Gwinnett Center, in which she has now shot 8-of-36 (.222) from the field, but her team continues to find ways to win and they have advanced to the conference title game for the first time since 2012.
"It just kind of changes my mindset," Simmons said of being able to ice the game from the line. "At any point in time I can do anything to help the team. That's what I knew had to do. I had the ball in my hands and they were fouling so I just had to go up there and shoot free throws."
For the second straight night, Tennessee struggled in the early going and faced a double digit deficit after Texas A&M guard Courtney Williams broke away down court for a layup to put the Aggies ahead, 21-11.
A relentless effort on the offensive boards brought second-year head coach Holly Warlick's team back to within two points, as they had three offensive rebounds and scored five points in a span of 17 seconds.
UT's biggest lead of the first half came with fifteen seconds left to play in the first period when Cierra Burdick drained a three-point basket from the top left of the key to put her team up 39-35. It was the first shot Tennessee had hit from beyond the arc in the tournament after missing their first 12 attempts.
The Aggies answered right back with a three-point basket of their own from Jordan Jones, who hit four in the game, as the halftime buzzer sounded.
In the first half, Texas A&M's offense was led by Williams and their regular season leading scorer Courtney Walker who combined to score 23 points in the opening period.
"We just had to try and stop them," Carter said of Williams and Walker who combined for 48 points in the game. "We had to keep our feet in front of them and it was tough because they are such versatile scorers."
Walker remained hot in the second half and the Aggies regained the lead at 59-57 after she connected from long range, but Lady Vol freshman point guard Jordan Reynolds, who scored nine points, answered back by hitting a three of her own.
With four minutes left to play, Walker brought the score to a deadlock for the eleventh and final time of the ballgame after hitting her 12th field goal of the game to bring the score to 75 all.
The sophomore guard from Texas A&M finished with a game-high 26 points.
From that point out, the Lady Vols went on a 11-2 run to earn the win and make up for their loss to the Aggies in the semifinal a year ago.
Tennessee shot 17-of-33 in the second half and finished with 48 rebounds, matching their total from the night before against LSU.
Harrison finished with a team high 20 points to go along with 13 rebounds. For the second straight night, Bashaara Graves finished with 14 points and nine rebounds.
"It has been our goal all along to get to the championship game," Warlick said. "These young ladies have worked all year for this moment. We've been really tough on them. We rebound everyday and they go through brutal drills. I'm very proud of them because it's a tough battle and they stepped up."
The win for No. 6 Tennessee sets them up for a title bout with Kentucky that will tip off at 3:30 p.m. EST on Sunday after the Wildcats knocked off top seeded South Carolina in their semifinals matchup.
The Wildcats defeated the Lady Vols in their last meeting, 75-71, in Knoxville on Feb. 16, which is the only game they have lost in their last 12 games.
"We need to redeem ourselves," Simmons said. "We can't think too much of revenge because when we do that we go out there and do too much and worry about stupid stuff. We just have to go out there and play hard and keep the fight and keep it going."